Shattering the silence

Azar Nafisi tackles demons far more punishing than those she encountered when writing 'Reading Lolita.'

By BEN NAPARSTEK
February 12, 2009 09:47
Shattering the silence

Azar Nafisi book 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Things I've Been Silent About: Memories By Azar Nafisi Random House 368 pages; $27 It's difficult imagining Azar Nafisi silent. Words pour from her rouged lips between sips of tea in the Watergate building of Washington DC, her adopted city. The Iranian émigré and author of Reading Lolita in Teheran: A Memoir in Books knows life under tyranny and doesn't take free speech for granted. That 2003 best-seller told of the clandestine reading group Nafisi held over two years for seven female students who, upon entering her Teheran home each week, would remove their chadors and discuss banned Western novels. But for the five years spent writing her follow-up memoir Things I've Been Silent About: Memories, which sets the torments of her dysfunctional family against Iran's historical turmoil, Nafisi fought an inner censor far more punishing than the Iranian theocrats. "It's been the toughest thing that I have ever done," she says. Its release marks the end of a long tug-of-war with her publisher in which she'd hand over and then retract the manuscript, insisting she wouldn't see it to print. Nafisi was writing a book about the social importance of the humanities in 2003, when her mother, Nezhat, died. She set the project aside to chronicle three generations of Iranian women - her maternal grandmother, her mother and herself. But the following year her father, Ahmad, unexpectedly succumbed, and the focus of the family history expanded. As a child, Nafisi bonded with Ahmad against her mother's tyranny, but by the end of his life - when she'd left Iran to teach literature at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies - their relationship soured. Ahmad dismayed his daughter by divorcing Nezhat at an age when she had few prospects of remarrying. "When he left her, she had nothing - she had no power, she could not complain," Nafisi says. "I saw how disadvantaged a woman becomes in a society where her rights are so limited. She was so alone." It was Ahmad who introduced Nafisi to literature through reading her Persian classics, but she didn't send him a copy of Reading Lolita. After her parents died, Nafisi regretted that her embitterment had barred her from empathizing with them: "I paid attention to how they were treating me, so it was about me and not them." With her new book, Nafisi tries to make amends. Nezhat resented the stories Ahmad told Nafisi and her brother, Mohammad; they rivalled the myths Nezhat spun about her princely first husband, Saifi, and the wicked stepmother she was subjected to after his death. Saifi, the son of a prime minister, married her without letting on that he was terminally ill. She spent their two matrimonial years nursing a dying man. Nezhat's mother died when she was two and she felt the maternal absence acutely, particularly when her father thwarted her ambition to attend university and become a doctor. "Everything that happened was so bad," Nafisi says, "that when my father came along, complaining about people not letting her do things became more important than doing them." Azar would experience the opportunities she never had, Nezhat insisted; but her mother never stopped berating her for falling short of expectations. "My mother lacked everything, so she tried to make me a perfect woman, which I could never be," Nafisi says. Already, at seven, Nafisi was desperately trying to rouse her mother's affection, and she threw herself down a flight of stairs. When that failed, she tried to slit her wrists with a razor. Nezhat responded by banishing her daughter to a room. Wistfully, Nafisi says: "I always so much wanted her to love me." Ahmad was an ambitious civil servant who became the mayor of Teheran before finding himself jailed in 1963. A spitting image of John F. Kennedy, he was alleged to have consorted with the clerical opposition to the shah - a trumped-up charge that possibly saved his life after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Ahmad half-joked that his four years in prison were his best, giving him a reprieve from his wife's rancor and the seclusion to write his 1,500-page diaries. While her husband was incarcerated, Nezhat enjoyed her first professional life as one of Iran's pioneer female parliamentarians, further imperiling him with her outspoken remarks and voting against a family protection law that augured a watershed for women's rights. "My family should not be political," Nafisi says. "We are too impulsive and outrageous." FOR ALL its candor, there are still silences in the book. Nafisi's brother was so anguished by reading the first 100 pages of a draft that he stopped and asked her to leave him out where possible. Nafisi was always jealous of the attention their mother lavished on him. Despite her professed feminist convictions, what Nezhat wanted most, according to Nafisi, was the protection of a son. Decades-old nightmares resurfaced as Nafisi wrote the book. One night, she dreamed that her younger self was trying to choke her. She'd wake thinking of her parents, then watch television to still her tears: "You put yourself in their places and it's as if you relive their pain." It's remarkable that Nafisi is not morose. In conversation, she has the mix of erudition and warmth that marks her writing and drew packed lecture halls when she taught English literature in Teheran. The author of a scholarly book on Vladimir Nabokov's novels, Nafisi resigned under pressure from the University of Teheran for refusing to wear the veil in 1982. She left academia again in the mid-'90s, unable to bear the state thought control any longer. Yet she misses the enthusiasm of her students in Iran, where the marginal place of culture generated a yearning for books and film. "Sometimes," she recalls, "we had as many as 20 people in our house watching Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander or the Marx Brothers or Woody Allen." Much of her adolescence was spent abroad studying in England and Switzerland, where her father sent her in part to protect her from his wife's spite. But her worldliness amounted to little when she settled for a suitor, Medhi, with an old-fashioned conception of a wife's role - a man she was neither physically attracted to nor loved. The memory smarts: "For someone like me, whose literary heroines were liberated women, to marry him and let him tell me what to do for three years - that was shameful." She followed Medhi to America to study at the University of Oklahoma; but by the time she moved back to Iran in 1979, with a newly-minted PhD, Nafisi had remarried to engineer Bijan Naderi, the father of her daughter Negar and son Dara. Nafisi compensated for her mother's neglect by becoming exceedingly affectionate: "I'm not just their mother, I'm their playmate," she says with a laugh both girlish and maternal. Returning with a young family, Nafisi found her homeland ruled by a theocratic regime more repressive than its American-backed predecessor. "From the very moment I entered the airport, it was different," she says. "Everything was grim. Nobody was running. The streets had changed. They had become more somber. There was fear." War broke out with Iraq in 1980, providing the new ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, with a welcome distraction from rising domestic opposition. Nafisi recalls as much euphoria as fear in those eight years: "It brought you very close to strangers. There would be a bombing so about 20 people would sleep in your house." Guilt hit her upon returning to the US to teach at Johns Hopkins in 1997: "You eat ice-cream and go to the cinemas and think, 'All the people that I left behind are not doing this.'" It was too dangerous for her to return to Iran, so Nafisi didn't see her parents again. THE REFORMIST president Mohammad Khatami has since been replaced by a madman, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but she's more hopeful now about a democratic future for Iran. "The young generation, the revolution's children, are not scared of being flogged and taken to jail," she comments. "They have become used to it and they are not going to obey the rules." When Columbia University gave Ahmadinejad a soapbox in 2007, Nafisi was appalled: "You invite someone to a university in order for them to have knowledge. Would Ahmadinejad say anything you didn't already know?" At least, she insists, he should have been paired with a dissident intellectual to represent "the Iranian people who have no voice." The renewed interest in the Middle East following the Iraq invasion surely contributed to the global popularity of Reading Lolita, which was translated into 32 languages. But the politically charged context also made Nafisi vulnerable to polemics. Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi likened Nafisi to Abu Ghraib abuser Lynndie England. "Rarely," he wrote, "has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home - all in one act." Nafisi always fiercely opposed the Iraq War, but in the book's Acknowledgements she thanked neoconservative historian Bernard Lewis for "opening the door" and "Paul" (read Wolfowitz) for introducing her to Leo Strauss's essay "Persecution and the Art of Writing." The later reference was distorted into the rumor, started by Christopher Hitchens, that Nafisi dedicated Reading Lolita to Wolfowitz. She attracted fire, too, for being listed with Benador Associates, the agency headed by Peruvian publicist Eleanor Benador that handled the press for many leading neocon pundits in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. Once Benador's political affiliations were brought to Nafisi's attention, she immediately asked to withdraw, but Benador continued to list her until Nafisi involved her publisher. The accusations, Nafisi says with a rising voice, amount to charges of guilt by association: "To say that talking about human rights in Iran is catering to the Bush administration is one of the most pernicious arguments I have heard. I came to this country because I believed in freedom of expression and in freedom of association." And as Nafisi returns to her manuscript about the social value of the liberal arts, she continues to express herself passionately. "All these great people Obama likes to talk about - Lincoln, Martin Luther King, FDR - these were knowledgeable men with poetic visions. That is why we are excited about Obama, but he needs to deliver now. I want to have a march in Washington for the humanities!"

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